JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's prime minister has ordered the
construction of two massive fences along the long and porous
southern border with Egypt, saying he wants to stem a growing flood
of African asylum seekers and to prevent Islamic militants from
entering the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the structure would help
preserve Israel's Jewish majority, while providing a layer of
protection along an open border with an area suspected of having an
"I decided to close Israel's southern border to infiltrators
and terrorists after prolonged discussions," he said in a
statement. "This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and
democratic character of the state of Israel. Israel will remain
open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal
workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood
our country," he said.
The two fences will cover nearly half of the 150-mile
(250-kilometer) border. One section will be near the Red Sea port
of Eilat. The other will be in southwest Israel, near the Gaza
Strip town of Rafah.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said government ministers
approved the plan Sunday evening. He said a date hasn't been set
for construction and it is unclear how long it would take to
complete the fences.
The project is expected to cost about $400 million, according to
local media reports.
The structure would come in addition to a massive fence
surrounding the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, as well as a
separation barrier that snakes along parts of Israel's more than
400-mile (680-kilometer) frontier with the West Bank, biting into
chunks of the territory as it runs. Egypt has its own fence along
Gaza's southern border, and is reinforcing the area with
underground metal plates to shut down tunnels used to smuggle goods
and weapons into Gaza.
The planned Egypt fence, like the West Bank and Gaza barriers,
is rooted largely in security concerns, along with efforts to keep
illegal migrants out, Israel says.
The military began planning the fence in 2005 after Israel
pulled out of the Gaza Strip, fearing that militants would freely
travel to Egypt and sneak into Israel. These concerns were
underscored in early 2007, when a Gaza suicide bomber sneaked into
Eilat through Egypt.
But the massive influx of African migrants into Israel in recent
years has given the project added momentum. U.N. officials and
human rights workers estimate some 17,000 to 19,000 people have
poured into Israel through the southern border since 2005, most of
them from Eritrea, Sudan and other war-torn African countries,
searching for a better life in Israel's relatively affluent
Most of them live in crowded slums in Tel Aviv or Eilat, where
many work as dishwashers and hotel bellboys.
The new arrivals have created a dilemma for authorities. On one
hand, they strain Israel's social service system, and officials
fear they could upset the country's demographic mix, possibly
tilting it away from a Jewish majority. About three-quarters of
Israel's 7 million citizens are Jewish.
On the other hand, Israel is a country created in large part as
a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, and many feel they cannot
turn their backs on the Africans, believing the government must be
more sensitive to their needs.
Advocacy groups also note that the asylum seekers are far
outnumbered by foreign workers who have flown into the country
legally and overstayed their visas.
Israel's policy toward the asylum seekers has been muddled, with
frequent changes in rules and procedures.
At present, Africans who cross into Israel through Egypt are
detained for several months in a nearby prison while their
applications are processed.
Most are eventually given one-month visas to stay in Israel that
they must renew every month, said Yonatan Berman of the Hotline for
Migrant Workers, an advocacy group that helps the asylum seekers.
They are not allowed to work, but the government turns a blind eye.
Israel requested Egypt tighten its border patrols. Amnesty
International says Egyptian security forces have killed 39 people,
mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, trying to cross into Israel between
2008 to mid-2009. More updated figures were not immediately
available. Both countries have been criticized by human rights
groups for their approach to the problem.
In Cairo, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said his
government had no objections to the fence, as long as it is on
Israeli territory. "This is a matter which concerns Israel. This
is something which Israel is building inside its territories, so
let it be," he told reporters.
Security and crime concerns have also prompted Israel to erect
the fences. Israeli officials frequently issue warnings urging
citizens to avoid travel to the neighboring Sinai Peninsula in
Egypt. The area is believed to be a stronghold for
al-Qaida-inspired extremists who have aligned themselves with
lawless Bedouin tribes in the area. In 2004, a total of 32 people
were killed in a pair of hotel bombings in the Sinai.
Smugglers use the porous area to traffic women into Israel's
prostitution trade, and it's also a main conduit for drugs entering
But its many walls illustrate Israel's sense of isolation in a
largely hostile region. The West Bank barrier in particular has
sparked international criticism because it frequently juts into the
West Bank, drawing accusations that Israel is using it to gobble up
land claimed by the Palestinians.
There are also fences separating Israel from hostile Lebanon and
parts of the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed after seizing the
Syrian territory in the 1967 Mideast war.
"Defense against terror activity clearly requires a fence,"
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio Monday. "Good fences
make good neighbors," Barak said, noting only Israel's western
border - the sea - did not need to be blocked off. "Along the sea
we don't need a fence," he said.